Our Opinion: Bernard Baran

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The death of Bernard Baran Jr. at the young age of 49 is the final injustice in a life marred by injustice. The Pittsfield native spent 21 years in jail until the overturning of his conviction on appeal in 2006 brought about his release, and eight years of freedom were hardly just compensation.

Those who have grown up in enlightened Massachusetts in the 29 years since Mr. Baran’s conviction would find it difficult to comprehend the world of the 1980s, when gays were expected to stay in the closet or be "cured" by junk scientific remedies. Mr. Baran, who was gay and worked at the Early Childhood Development Center in Pittsfield, was also caught up in a nationwide hysteria involving child care sex abuse and found himself accused of abusing five children at the center.

The case that ensued in Berkshire Superior Court in the midst of this ugly climate was a throwback to the Salem witch trials. The courtroom was closed during the testimony of the alleged victims, a violation of Mr. Baran’s right to public trial. Psychologists testified to the "repressed memories" of the children, a pseudoscientific practice now thoroughly discredited. Reports and statements that may have assisted Mr. Baran, such as the coaching of a child by a parent hoping for a cash settlement and the possibility that a family member may have abused one of the children, were withheld from the defense. On these grounds and others, Judge Francis Fecteau of Worcester Superior Court threw out the case on appeal in 2006 and Mr. Baran was freed.

Mr. Baran, who was living in Fitchburg at the time of his death, received a $400,000 settlement from the state, avoiding a lawsuit it would surely have lost, but the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley declined Mr. Baran’s request that his criminal record be expunged. It should have been, given the nature of his trial, and still should be posthumously.

The ultimately successful efforts of those who fought to free Mr. Baran led to the creation of the National Center for Reason and Justice, which helps others who are falsely convicted of crimes. That will be part of Mr. Baran’s legacy. His legacy will also be served if people resolve to challenge and then shed their suspicions of others they regard as "different," and further resolve to be skeptical of the pack mentality and conventional wisdom that can lead to so much needless pain, anguish, unfairness and injustice.


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